They are using Tasers at Dale Farm

Why it is right to be critical of the police.

Our society not only tolerates the sort of people who want to wear uniforms and want to use weapons against civilians, it actually employs them to do so. And today some of these people may well be using Tasers against travellers at Dale Farm.

Of course, having a professional and trained police force is better than the alternative, and in no sensible way can we be described as being in a police state. However, there will be those who read the first paragraph of this post and will be outraged at my apparent disdain. The police do a difficult job, they will say, and one should just be grateful for what they do. One should not be so dismissive, others will remark, especially if you do not know the pressures and stress that the police face routinely. The feature that many of these responses will share is they are non sequiturs: they deal with something which has not been said, and criticise objections which have not been made.

There are many people -- not just police officers -- who do not want to hear any criticism of the police and will immediately seek to close it down. Any adverse comment about the police will mean that one is either a dangerous anarchist wanting a lawless and brutal society, or a naive fool not realising just how lucky they are to be kept safe. It is easy to be brave from a distance. And so on. One must always remember the thin blue line.

Such responses are part of a wider problem. As a society we are actually not very good at holding the police to account, and -- frankly -- the police are not very good at taking criticism. Accordingly, we have a situation where the police are generally left to get on with their work in return for them generally not misusing their rights and privileges. The failure of any efficient mechanisms for scrutinising the police then only become obvious with a suspicious death or some public order failure which cannot be ignored. In the meantime, the police can get away with, say, casually exceeding their powers or taking payments from private investigators as long as our streets are safe and they respond promptly to 999 calls.

One can wonder how long this unofficial social contract can last. It surely is not sustainable, especially with modern communications. The police have been caught out repeatedly lying in the aftermath of fatalities. Their attempts to spin and evade legitimate concerns about misconduct are legion. Individual police officers often threaten those who criticise with libel actions, whilst chief constables employ ever-growing (and often unhelpful) PR departments. And, as for the police complaints commission, one can be surprised that its formal name includes the word "independent". But it may be that an age of deference is passing.

It is right that in a liberal and democratic society the State has a monopoly in the use of coercive force against citizens, but this monopoly has to be balanced with accountability and transparency. Those who rush to rubbish anyone questioning the police, or are quickly dismissive of those complaining of the use of force, are in fact not helping serving officers. They are instead entrenching a needless lack of effective communication. The abuse of libel and the over-use of PR professionals are similarly undesirable features of modern policing. However, policing ultimately requires practical co-operation and implicit consent. Wise police officers know this.

The more openly critical we can be of those who have the power to coerce us, the better. And the more the police can explain their decisions and justify their actions, the better. After all, they can have nothing to hide; even the ones wearing paramilitary uniforms and using weapons at Dale Farm.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and at The Lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.